State steps into day-school debate
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State steps into day-school debate

Parents continuing to struggle with rising day-school tuition may soon get some help from the state.

Passaic Assemblyman Gary Schaer has been named co-chair of the Non-Public Education Funding Commission, created by Gov. Corzine late last month to investigate how New Jersey can aid private schools without crossing the line separating church and state.

“The work of this commission will be critically important in improving educational opportunities for our students and ensuring a bright future for all children throughout this state,” Corzine said Dec. 22 as he signed the executive order creating the group.

New Jersey has 1,200 non-public schools, educating more than 170,000 students, according to Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of the State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee. Of those students, approximately 80 percent attend religious schools.

George Corwell, New Jersey Catholic Conference’s director of education, will co-chair the commission with Schaer (D-36). The 23-member body will also include the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, the state treasurer, and the N.J. attorney general, who will monitor church-state issues.

Responsibilities include reviewing ways to help non-public schools maximize grant funding; exploring how to create incentives for charitable giving to non-public schools; investigating how to better the non-public school learning experience through equipment such as textbooks, technology, and furniture; and finding ways to most effectively use state and federal funds within the boundaries of church and state separation. Corzine gave the commission a June 1 deadline to make its recommendations.

“The commission is important in identifying the areas of funding they feel would be of help,” Pruzansky told The Jewish Standard. “The bottom line is, once they do find those issues, what will the legislature or governor do?”

Currently, the state provides $137 in annual aid per student to private-school students – $72 for nursing aid and $65 for textbooks. Schaer, an Orthodox Jew himself, said the commission could potentially come up with $1,500 to $2,000 per student. Specifically, the state could provide additional aid for busing, nursing, textbooks, and technology.

“That would be a great assist to the children and their families,” he said.

Non-public schools have largely been ignored by the state, according to Pruzansky, but their students represent a significant savings to New Jersey taxpayers. If all of New Jersey’s private-school students switched to public schools, it would cost taxpayers an additional $2.75 billion, he said.

“The fact that these schools exist is saving taxpayers close to $3 billion a year,” he said.

Families that do not use the public-school system still pay for it through property taxes. According to the non-profit Tax Foundation, New Jersey has among the highest property taxes in the country. Day-school parents may also pay tuition bills ranging from $6,000 to $55,000 per student, depending on the school.

“We’ve all been living with this issue for as long as we can,” Schaer said. “This is not simply a Jewish issue, not simply a Catholic issue. It’s an issue about our children – about the state we want to live in.”

The Orthodox Union, an umbrella group that has been searching for solutions to the day-school crisis for the past year, welcomed Corzine’s proclamation.

“I hope the recommendations will be [those] we can implement relatively quickly and easily,” said Howie Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy.

The OU and Agudath Israel recently put their weight behind a proposal to allow corporate tax credits for donations to private schools. Both organizations had also supported the idea of school vouchers, but Beigelman noted that Corzine did not support the proposal because he was wary of the constitutional issues involved.

“It’s an honest view,” Beigelman said. “This commission’s going to be able to look at that, what the state can do, what other states are doing, and where the state can go in the future.”

Beigelman said Gov.-elect Chris Christie is a proponent of school choice and may further press the legislature on funding.

Rabbi Saul Zucker, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s director of day school services, called the commission “a wonderful thing.”

“A solution to the overall crisis is not going to lie exclusively in the government,” he said. “It requires a really multi-faceted approach. The model of a kehillah fund is a wonderful component. How we can utilize government programs is another wonderful component. Different avenues of fund-raising are another wonderful component. You have to bring all these things to bear.”

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